Brussels pissing contest

According to Wikipedia, a pissing contest is “a game in which participants compete to see who can urinate …the farthest…” In Brussels there are three pissing statues.

Brussels pissing contest: Manneken PisNowadays, if asked to invent a mascot for a capital city, it’s hard to believe that anyone not an adolescent member of certain student fraternities would come up with the idea of a little boy, naked, holding his penis and pissing. But Manneken Pis, the ancient symbol of Brussels is exactly that.

Illustrations of the little statuette (it’s only about 60cm tall) crop up in all sorts of official publicity and advertising around the city. Chocolatiers produce models of him in chocolate, solid or filled with ganache. Signposts direct locals and tourists alike to visit the figure.

Manneken Pis Swedish National Day 6 June 2015On special occasions – several times a week in fact – a street parade marches to his fountain and dresses him up in appropriate clothes. This photo shows him in his “Swedish” costume last year on June 6th. His wardrobe, of several hundred costumes, is on display in a special room of the City Museum on the Grand-Place.

Manneken Pis has been plumbed into the city water supply since 1619, but the present statue is a replica of the original which is now also kept in the City Museum. (And the original is said to have been a replacement for an earlier pissing boy from the 14th century.) The plumbing is not permanent, and the statue is sometimes instead connected to a beer keg in order to piss beer.

But all this begs the question, why? Ask and you get a variety of answers, not all of which are mutually exclusive. Some people will tell you one or other of the myths about the hero-child who urinated on the city’s enemies from up in a tree, or put out the fuse of an explosive set to demolish the city by peeing on it. (See Wikipedia for a selection of these stories.) Others say the figure commemorates a lost child who was eventually found, untroubled by his disappearance and casually relieving himself on a street corner. People will also tell you that Manneken Pis represents the spirit of the ordinary people of Brussels, and their attitude towards authority.

This latter interpretation seems to be especially popular – and perhaps have more to recommend it – in explaining the other two pissing statues. Because Manneken Pis is no longer alone.

Brussesl pissing contest - Jeanneke PisIn 1987 his sister, Jeanneke Pis, was unveiled on one side of the Impasse de la Fidélité. (Impasse de la Fidélité means Fidelity Impasse; an interesting metaphor in itself.)

Unlike Manneken Pis, you have to go out of your way to look for Jeanneke – unless your way takes you to Brussels’ internationally famous Delirium Café, which has colonised the whole of the Impasse de la Fidélité. Sad to say, I’ve heard no stories of Jeanneke ever being connected up to any of Delirium’s many beer kegs. She is kept behind lock and bar, but you are encouraged to toss coins into the fountain basin for good luck and to help support charity.

Jeanneke and Fidelity Impass

And then in 1999 a third participant joined the Brussels pissing contest. Het Zinneke – usually called Zinneke Pis – is a mongrel dog cocking its leg on a bollard on the corner of rue des Chartreux and rue du Vieux-Marché. Unlike Manneken and Jeanneke, Zinneke is not plumbed in, so in real terms he loses the contest immediately, but the dog has other advantages. He is not locked away or behind bars and you can pat him and (if really desperate I suppose) take selfies with him.

Brussels pissing contest: Zinneke PisZinneke is the Brussels dialect name for the river that runs through (now mostly under) Brussels – the Senne or Zenne. It’s also the name for a mixed breed dog – and by extension for the mongrel folk of Brussels.

The Zinneke Parade, a biannual Brussels carnival, takes its name from the same source as the dog. Perhaps it was also inspired by Het Zinneke since the first Parade took place when Brussels was European City of Culture in 2000. Planning and preparation must have started around about the same time Het Zinneke was installed.

Manneken commerce collageThe route of the parade seems usually to take in all three statues. This year’s parade took place last weekend. I’m still kicking myself for forgetting my camera with me when I went to see what it was all about. Still, you can see lots of other people’s photos here.

As far as I can make out, no one is pissing.

Manneken Pis in situ

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Time travel – the Brussels Atomium

If you’ve ever fancied experiencing time travel, I recommend a visit to the Brussels Atomium.

Supposedly modelled on the crystal structure of an atom of iron, enlarged 165 billion times, the Atomium is partly a building, partly a sculpture. Taken all together, it is a remarkable construction. With nine stainless steel balls 18 meters in diameter, massive connecting tubes and supports, it stands 102 meters to the top of its antenna, which also does duty as a flagstaff.

Time travel - the Atomium time machineIt broods on the horizon north from Brussels city centre, but you can only really see it when you are up high or when looking in the right direction from the trains to and from the International Airport. Until my recent visit, I’d never seen it up close, so I was a little unsure whether I would be able to find it when I exited the metro station at Heysel. I needn’t have worried. It’s very obvious.

Time travel - 1958 World FairIt was originally erected for Expo 58, the Brussels World Fair in 1958. It stands now as a monument to the future. To the future as conceived in the 1950s, that is. A future familiar from the covers of magazines like Popular Mechanics or Galaxy Science Fiction, or SF film posters and stills. A future from when atomic power seemed like an unalloyed Good Thing.

Clockwise from left: The Atomium under construction - a French magazine, front cover of Amazing Stories c. 1960; still from Forbidden Planet, 1956;  front cover Practical Mechanics 1954; still from The Shape of Things to Come 1936; front cover Galaxy Science Fiction 1958
Clockwise from left: The Atomium under construction – a French magazine, front cover of Amazing Stories c. 1960; still from Forbidden Planet, 1956; front cover Practical Mechanics 1954; still from The Shape of Things to Come 1936; front cover Galaxy Science Fiction 1958

Time travel - Atomium SpheresThe Atomium and I are roughly the same age. It opened along with the Expo 58 in April 1958, while I put in an appearance in July of the same year. My childhood was imbued with the same futuristic designs that inspired the Atomium’s creators, design engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak. And in all probability the Atomium also inspired the future art of the 1960s.

Time travel - Atomium sphereWhen I talk about time travel in respect of visiting the Atomium, I’m talking partly about travelling back in time to the futuristic designs that thrilled my childhood and illustrated my earliest experience of science fiction. I got something of the same sensation when I visited the Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum in London last year.

Time travel - Atomium interior 2The Cosmonauts exhibition took the story from the fantastic visions of the original space pioneers to the gritty reality of modern space flight. (Hopefully not literally gritty, to be sure.) However the Atomium seems suspended in an alternate time line. Perhaps because the structure simply wasn’t intended to have a real purpose. (It isn’t a spaceship, however much it looks like one.) So visiting is a form of time travel that takes you back (takes me back anyway) to rediscover the future vision of the original creators.

Time travel - Atomium interior 7 escalatorsOn the very slow escalators, the light show – a more recent addition I’m sure – deliberately contributes to this sensation. Apart from making it feel like you are moving a lot faster than you are, they also hark back to cinematographic images of travelling through wormholes in space, along turbo-lift shafts or spacecraft corridors.

Time travel - Atomium interior 9 disco-bridgeThe psychedelic light show with electronic music in one of the spheres could have been a set for any number of low-budget SF films from the 1970s. I felt right at home. (A couple of other, younger visitors attempted Swedish House Mafia style dance steps, but soon gave up. The electronic music was far too slow and laid back.)

Central Brussels from AtomiumUp in the top sphere of the Atomium, the lower half has an observation gallery with great views over Brussels and the countryside around. The upper half is a restaurant. There may be good views there too, but as it’s a restaurant, not a café, I wouldn’t know. The Atomium itself costs €12 entrance fee for one adult, which I thought was OK, but I wasn’t prepared to buy a whole meal just to see the view one flight higher up. There is a café, but it’s at ground level and outside the building. I passed on that.

Atomium interior 3
The lower top deck of the Atomium, less spaceship, more submarine conning tower. The steps lead up to the restaurant.

Atomium interior 15 kids sphereOne of the spheres (off limits to visitors when I was there) was reserved for children. Apparently schools can come to an arrangement with the Atomium and bring a class here to sleep over in specially designed spherical beds. It sounds like a great idea. I grabbed a photo of the beds through the refelections on the door.

TheSupercargo with presumed Atomium with mascotWhat else to add? Oh yes, as I entered the Atomium on the ground floor I had my photo taken with a mascot. I didn’t choose this; it was nothing I could avoid. On the way out I was invited to pay another €7 for a copy of the photo. Well, I paid, but I still can’t work out what this was all about. The mascot doesn’t appear anywhere on the Atomium web site, so I’m guessing it was all in aid of advertising something else – but I have no idea what. I rather think that counts as an advertising failure.

Here’s another time travel photo for you!

Atomium interior 11 escalators

Added later that same day…
It occurs to me I should also say that, escalators aside, the Atomium also has some serious flights of stairs to climb – down as well as up. In the 1950s the future did not include physical disability. Or perhaps anti-gravity suits and jet-packs were going to make walking superfluous. Well, that was that future. In the real world the Atomium is not friendly to anyone with restricted mobility. And even if you don’t find long stairs a challenge, your legs may well feel the Atomium effect the day after. Mine did.

A visit to the Wikipedia page for the Atomium will inform you that the Belgian copyright authorities are keen to screw money on behalf of the Waterkeyn family from anyone who publishes unlicensed images of the Atomium. Consequently it seems necessary for me to point out that the illustrations on this blog post are exempt from rights restrictions as they are “photographs …taken by [a] private individual and shown on [this] website… for no commercial purpose.”

Hmm… Not all the photos of course, the images in the collage are sourced from various places on-line – mostly e-bay.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

London Green

London green: green is perhaps not the colour one first associates with London – red, perhaps, or black – but maybe one should think about green.

London symbolsIf you ask someone what colour they associate with London, I guess most people would say red (thinking of London’s buses); or red, blue and white (the colours of the London Underground); or perhaps black (thinking of the black cabs). The colours of the Greater London Council are red and yellow, blue and white, while the City of London’s coat of arms show the red cross (and sword) of St George on a white ground.

Green is one colour people don’t usually associate with London. Perhaps they should.

Last week Mrs SC and I were in England, partly to visit my family, partly to snatch a very brief break for the two of us in London. It’s many years since we were both together in Britain in spring, and after a long, cold, grey winter it was wonderful to be greeted by London under the sun and decked in green. We only had two days, but took the opportunity to walk through five of London’s parks to enjoy the London green.

Henry Moore's Stone Arch across the Serpentine in Hyde ParkLondon is such a tourist magnate, with all its sights, museums, events and buildings that it can be easy to forget just how much green there is in the city too. I’ve grumbled here before about “densification” (in Swedish, förtätning). This is the distressing behaviour of modern city planners and developers who believe the best thing to do with an open space in a city is to build on it. Preferably something monstrous.

I presume such planners and developers don’t actually live in the cities they are keen to make more dense. I imagine they have their family homes or vacation houses in the open countryside somewhere. People who actually live in cities – especially densely populated ones; people who don’t have a second home to flee to – perhaps have barely the one home they can afford; for these people the city’s green parks and open spaces are an essential amenity.

They’re not bad for tourists either.

In fact, according to this article from The Independent a couple a years back, 47% of London is green space. Mrs SC and I only visited a very small part of London green, but it was very enjoyable.

London green: London skyline from Hamstead Heath (City)Our first day, we walked from our bed-and-breakfast hotel near Finchley Road up into Hampstead village and then across Hampstead Heath to Kenwood and Highgate, taking in this view across central London. There’s a bit of a haze in the photo, but you can see the City of London’s financial centre and the Gherkin building, and the Glass Shard at London Bridge. Just in front of it you should be able to make out the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

London green: London skyline from Hamstead Heath (Westminster)In the second photo you should be able to make out the London Eye and the BT Tower – the spindle-shaped building to the right. (It used to be called the GPO Tower when I was a boy, in the days when Britain had a General Post Office that also ran telecommunications.) Between the two, on the horizon you can also see the radio and television mast at Crystal Palace. Unfortunately the resolution isn’t good enough to make out the tower that houses Big Ben at Westminster – but take it from me, it’s there. (For a much more detailed – and zoom-able – version of this view, visit Will Pearson’s London Panorama project.)

London green: In Kensington GardensOur second day we entubed to Queensway and then walked through the chain of Royal Parks down to Whitehall. Starting in Kensington Gardens, we walked south and east to the Serpentine, the lake that snakes its way through Hyde Park. We followed the Serpentine along past Princess Diana’s fountain and the Lido – the Serpentine’s bathing beach – all the way down to Rotten Row.

London green: Cavalry horses exercising on Rotten Row in Hyde ParkRotten Row is the ride that runs along the south side of Hyde Park where the Queen’s guard cavalry regiments exercise their horses. One team cantered past, kicking up the dust.

From the far corner of Hyde Park we crossed into Green Park and walked on to the far corner near the front of Buckingham Palace. The Queen was home (the Royal Standard was flying), but she didn’t come out to say anything indiscreet to us.

London green: Selfie in St James's ParkWe crossed into St James’s Park, paused for selfies on the bridge over the lake and then walked on to Parliament Square.

The whole walk took about 2 hours. (We weren’t pushing it.) At Whitehall we caught a number 11 double-decker bus to St Paul’s and enjoyed sitting down on the top floor as the bus edged its way through the traffic. When we finally reached St Paul’s, we had a sandwiches sitting in the sun on the steps of the Cathedral with all the other tourists.

That wasn’t all we did in London, but I think it’s enough for this blog entry.

London green: Skyline from Hampstead Heath

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.